Present Tense vs. Past Tense. Which is best?


southbank bench
We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing. – R. D. Laing

It’s a dilemma us writers battle with all too often. We sit down at our computers or notebooks, ready to feel our story pour onto the page when… suddenly.. we don’t know where to begin. Which time to we want to drag our readers into? Past or present? Now or then?

You would think that, as a writer, we should be gifted with the knowledge of time – that we have this… instinct –   when we start writing, of where we want the story to go.  And most of the time we do. But sometimes we just can’t decide. Do we start with ‘doing’ or ‘did.’

‘Hannah sits on the bed, the smile fading from her face.’ This line immediately throws us into the moment. We feel as if we are in the room with Hannah, watching her sit on the bed and can see the smile fade from her face. The scene is unfolding right in front of us.

‘Hannah sat on the bed. The smile faded from her face.’ Now this line is revealed in a more telling aspect. It drags us into the past. Okay, Hannah’s sat on the bed and the smile has faded from her face. So? What happens next?

Present tense is something which contemporary writers use a lot. They like to include their readers in the story, along on the journey. With past tense, the story has already happened. No matter what, we can’t change it. My tutor, the brilliant novelist Michael Nath, told me that writing novels in past tense, gives the story some weight. If you want to include backstory and a ream of memories, then past tense makes the writing process so much easier to dip in and out of. I speak from experience.

A novel I am currently ploughing through, started off in the present tense. I didn’t think – I just wrote it all in the present tense. That was how the words came to me. I was in the moment and wanted to show my readers the story as I was seeing it.

But then my tutor pointed out the immediacy of the present tense. I hadn’t really thought about it. When you write in the present tense, you have to relate everything that the protagonist is doing… because you are in that moment. If she went to the cupboard to find a packet of biscuits then we’d feel compelled to write that because… well… it’s happening right now.

However, with past tense, we can cut out all the characters faffing around with biscuits and wondering what they’re going eat for dinner that night. We can just get right to the point of relevance in our story. Especially when your story carries a lot of backstory, which mine does, then past tense is usually the best bet. If you’re relying on backstory to fuel your novel then you can hark back to the ‘past.’ Why would you want to keep dipping in and out of the two tenses? It’s confusing for the reader and a hindrance to the writer.

It’s a new debate that’s arising now, particularly because of the contemporary novels that are battling for a shelf in the number one bookshop.

I’m curious to know what you all think though? If you’re a writer swinging between past and present tense or, if you just want to delve into the debate – leave a comment below or tweet @WritersNew.





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